This week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland will be a watershed moment in the takeover of Republican foreign policy by Donald Trump. We are about to watch a host of senior party leaders water down or whitewash their dismay about their candidate’s eccentric views about the United States’ role in the world.
How is Republican foreign policy being made in this election cycle? Inside the Trump campaign, a team of foreign policy and national security experts meets with the candidate on a regular basis, but they are not primarily engaged in devising positions for Trump to announce. The process, according to two advisers I spoke with, is this: Trump’s foreign policy aides wait for him to say something in public about an international issue and then craft a policy around whatever he said. The details of how Trump utterances fit into his overall international vision are worked out after the fact.
On Saturday, Trump struggled to respond to the attempted coup in Turkey, saying, “We wish them well. . . . Hopefully it will all work out.” His campaign didn’t seem to think his lack of any real position or knowledge on the issue was a problem.
Increasingly, party leaders are adopting a similar strategy. While there are dozens of Republican officials, lawmakers and experts who will never endorse Trump, more and more are looking for ways to describe his foreign policy vision as compatible with their own.
Most commonly, these Republican officials seek to project support of Trump’s national security policies by focusing on the broadest and vaguest themes.
“Donald Trump wants America to once again be tough and strong and hard-nosed in the world. That’s part of a long and bipartisan tradition that has largely been abandoned during the Obama administration,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told me.
Cotton is going to the convention and even speaking on the first night, when there will reportedly be a focus on the Benghazi attacks. But Cotton is not part of the Trump campaign, and he doesn’t agree with Trump on several foreign policy issues, such as Trump’s call for the United States to reduce its commitment to NATO.
Cotton wants to hear Trump reassure Republicans on foreign policy, perhaps by announcing a list of national security officials he might appoint, as he did with the Supreme Court. “I’ll be there to make the case for Republican ideas,” he said. “I surrogate for no man.”
During the convention, several other GOP senators will also be working hard to highlight the parts of Trump’s foreign policy they believe overlap with traditional Republican positions. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), for example, told me that Trump’s trade policies are congruent with his own, even though Perdue supports multiple trade agreements that Trump opposes.
“Here’s where Donald Trump and I agree: I am a free-trader but I want a level playing field,” he said.
Perdue also is not concerned about Trump’s statements praising Vladimir Putin, or his comments about how Saddam Hussein was “so good” at killing terrorists. “Here’s what I hear him saying: ‘I can deal with Putin,’ ” Perdue said. “I don’t see much inconsistency here.”
Many Republican senators are trying to influence Trump on foreign policy. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) was among the first to attempt to steer the candidate from the inside. He leads Trump’s national security advisory team and will speak at the convention as well.
Other GOP senators have all but given up on trying to get Trump to sound like a traditional Republican. Despite having worked with Trump for months, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Tenn.) will not be speaking at the convention, after taking himself out of contention to be Trump’s running mate early this month.
More hawkish Republican senators, including John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), are not going to the convention at all, preferring to concentrate on their election campaigns.
While internationalist Republicans pretend that there isn’t much difference between Trump’s view of the world and their own, many in the GOP have always wanted a more realist, America-first policy. For them, Trump’s nomination is a long-awaited and welcome shift in how the party thinks and speaks about topics such as trade, energy and national security.
“I represent a part of the country that was absolutely devastated by NAFTA,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) told me. “Donald Trump shows up as someone who is thinking exactly as I am.”
But Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump during the primaries, warned that convention-goers shouldn’t expect a lot of detailed foreign policy delineations on the convention stage.
Unified by their opposition to Hillary Clinton, most Republicans are overlooking Trump’s shallowness and incompetence on foreign policy. Their party may have to live with the consequences of that opportunism for years to come.